There are many different ways of, well, reading the unreadable: what isn’t so well-known is that the technical terminology we use tends to highlight those particular aspects that we think are worthy of study (as well as to occult those aspects we are not so interested in). The big three buzzwords are:-

  • Cryptographywriting hidden messages – a historical / forensic approach
  • Cryptanalysis: analysing hidden messages – a statistical / analytical approach
  • Cryptology: reading hidden messages – a linguistic / code-breaking approach

Generally, you’ll see these terms used extremely loosely (if not interchangeably): but that’s something of a tragedy, as each strand is concerned with a different type of discourse, a different type of truth to help us get to the end-line, that of finding out what happened.

(1) If you study the cryptography of the Voynich Manuscript, you would primarily focus on issues such as: the intellectual history behind (and embedded within) the glyphs, the forensic layering of the writing itself, the physical strokes that make up the letters, what corrections there are to be found, how Voynichese practice evolved during the construction of the document, how the writing interrelates with the drawings, etc. This is reconstructive forensic history, that seeks to establish the truth of the writing system – to establish the mental structures that were given systematic shape (and yet were hidden) in the writing. In many ways, the end-product would be an accurate transcription of the text – but I strongly believe that this strand has not yet been pursued to its logical conclusion.

(2) If you study the cryptanalysis of the Voynich manuscript, you would instead take the study of the cryptography completely as a given, and use the resulting transcription as a starting point for your analytical research, however (in)accurate it may be. The argument has typically been that even if, say, 10% of the transcription is wrong, statistical analysis of the remaining 90% should still yield informative results that are (to a certain degree) illustrative of the underlying mechanisms. Yet the specific reliance upon the transcription cannot be ignored, particularly when you go hunting for larger-scale patterns (such as words, or lines).  And there is a very strong case to be made that the absence of convincing statistical results to date arises not from inadequate statistical testing, but instead from some basic division within the text being misunderstood.

(3) If you study the cryptology of the Voynich Manuscript, then you would take as a given a carefully-selected set of statistical properties previously derived from cryptanalysis, and look for some kind of linguistic fit between those properties and the properties of known languages and/or transformations of known languages (such as shorthand, patois, abbreviation, contraction, etc). Many Voynich theories are based on a very naive cryptological reading, often filling the vast gaps between the two models by expanding the range of possible languages that are present all at the same time, and hence resulting in a claimed plaintext that is a hugely interpretative soup of Romance language fragments – though Leo Levitov’s “polyglot oral tongue” is a prime example, it is very far from being the only one of its kind.

In terms of this framework, I’ve invested most of my time on the VMs’ cryptography, to the point where I believe I can give an account of each of the glyphs and of the evolution of the writing system: but I’m now at the point where I have to move on to the cryptanalysis in a more focused way to make progress.

The overall point I’m trying to make is that we need to get the history (cryptography), the statistics (cryptanalysis) and the linguistics (cryptology) sorted out in order to get over the high walls of the Voynich Manuscript’s defences: its singular beauty arises from how it manages to confound all three of these approaches simultaneously. This is, I suspect, merely a byproduct of the ‘undivided’ Quattrocento thinking that gave it life – that it comes from the time-period just before we (as a culture) imposed artificial divisions on the way we think about the world… just before intellectual specialization took hold. The historian part of me wants to shout: look, it’s the product of a Renaissance Man, in every useful sense of that much-abused phrase.

5 thoughts on “Cryptography vs Cryptanalysis vs Cryptology…

  1. Dennis on February 4, 2009 at 5:39 am said:

    Hi Nick! This is an interesting analysis. As you say, these three terms are used pretty loosely, so this is really your breakdown of the study of the Voynichese system, and as such, it makes sense.

    “And there is a very strong case to be made that the absence of convincing statistical results to date arises not from inadequate statistical testing, but instead from some basic division within the text being misunderstood.” This would certainly explain some things, like the repeated words along with the lack of long repeated phrases. Do you still hold your idea of how the long “tails” of characters are significant? What else do you have in mind here?


  2. All the same, -graphy means “writing”, -analysis means “analysis”, and -logy means “reading”: so all I’m doing is reclaiming the often-misused terms in a very literal sense. 🙂

    The long tails (The Curse, pp.164-168) are one example, but there are others: I’ll post on those another day…

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Jennelle Smith on March 6, 2016 at 3:17 pm said:

    Hello. i want to know if it is possible for me to become a cryptologist, cryptoanalyst and a cryptographer at the same time, and study for them all during the same time period. can you answer my questions? i am really interested in these career fields (which i find odd because i despise computer science), i am drawn to the mathematical factors considered during these career. i also want to be a forensic anthropologist but my dilemma is me wanting to get a degree for all these at the same time and all i wan to know if its possible. i have plenty of time to consider my options but i want to settle on a concrete decision and not necessarily only one degree. (I’m in third form, probably ninth grade for you people). i am looking forward to your answers. thank you

  4. Confusing cryptography with cryptology…becomes more obvious..if we compare it with confusing biography with biology….
    someone please correct the wikipedia article on cryptography.

  5. Nikolai on January 13, 2018 at 6:44 pm said:

    There is a key to cipher the Voynich manuscript.
    The key to the cipher manuscript placed in the manuscript. It is placed throughout the text. Part of the key hints is placed on the sheet 14. With her help was able to translate a few dozen words that are completely relevant to the theme sections.
    The Voynich manuscript is not written with letters. It is written in signs. Characters replace the letters of the alphabet one of the ancient language. Moreover, in the text there are 2 levels of encryption. I figured out the key by which the first section could read the following words: hemp, wearing hemp; food, food (sheet 20 at the numbering on the Internet); to clean (gut), knowledge, perhaps the desire, to drink, sweet beverage (nectar), maturation (maturity), to consider, to believe (sheet 107); to drink; six; flourishing; increasing; intense; peas; sweet drink, nectar, etc. Is just the short words, 2-3 sign. To translate words with more than 2-3 characters requires knowledge of this ancient language. The fact that some symbols represent two letters. In the end, the word consisting of three characters can fit up to six letters. Three letters are superfluous. In the end, you need six characters to define the semantic word of three letters. Of course, without knowledge of this language make it very difficult even with a dictionary.
    If you are interested, I am ready to send more detailed information, including scans of pages showing the translated words.
    And most important. In the manuscript there is information about “the Holy Grail”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation